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Chicago Chinatown stalwart Woodrow ‘Woodie’ Lee dead at 89

Woodrow "Woodie" Lee, past president of the Chinese American Civic Council, worked to build a new library in Chinatown and the Leonard Louie Fieldhouse in Ping Tom Memorial Park. | Supplied photo

Woodie Lee was part of the generation that built Chicago’s Chinatown.

He died just before midnight on the evening of May 15, said May Young Chin, chief of the Chinese American Civic Council, where he was a past president. Mr. Lee, 89, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died at his home in Chinatown, according to his sister Lonnie.

“We’re basically losing all these longtime residents who were instrumental in making Chinatown what it is today,” Chin said of the neighborhood that’s become a center of local and global commerce, cultural attractions and many, many restaurants.

Mr. Lee was among community leaders who pushed for expansion and improvements including a new library, creation of Ping Tom Memorial Park and the Leonard M. Louie field house.

Woodrow “Woodie” Lee (on left in baseball cap), who grew up in Chinatown, played for the Dragons baseball team. | Family photo
Woodrow “Woodie” Lee (on left in baseball cap), who grew up in Chinatown, played for the Dragons baseball team. | Family photo

“Without their vision, persistence and tenacity, the greater Chicago Chinatown would probably still end at 23rd Place,” Chin said.

He also was in the first sizable group of Catholics in Chinatown, where he was among the early graduates of St. Therese Chinese Catholic School. He contributed to scholarships there, his sister said.

Woodrow “Woodie” Lee. | Supplied photo
Woodrow “Woodie” Lee. | Supplied photo

Everybody in Chinatown seemed to know him, she said.

“He was the most likable guy, charming personality,” Lonnie Lee said. “All I had to say was, ‘I’m Woodrow Lee’s sister,’ and people said, ‘I know you.’

“He always said, ‘Be happy, so people around you, you make them happy.'”

Young Woodie grew up one of 15 kids in Chinatown. His parents, who were born in China, operated a laundry at 49th and Ashland, and he attended Tilden High School, relatives said.

While serving in the Army in the late 1940s, he worked as a cook at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where, he later told his family, he served Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Later, he was among many Chinatown residents who worked at the famed, Polynesian-themed Trader Vic’s restaurant in the Palmer House hotel in the Loop.

“He was supposed to be a waiter, and they were short a guy, and they said, ‘OK, you’re a captain,’ ” his sister said.

Mr. Lee, who lived for a time in Gurnee, also worked at or helped manage family eateries including three on Wentworth Avenue: the China restaurant, Far East Oven and Lucky Coffee shop. At one point, he owned Far East Oven, according to his sister.

He also was president of another community group, the Lee Association.

Woodrow “Woodie” Lee at a Chinatown Christmas celebration. | Supplied photo
Woodrow “Woodie” Lee at a Chinatown Christmas celebration. | Supplied photo

He was a big White Sox fan.

“He took me to my first White Sox game,” she said. “We used to know Minnie Minoso in the 1950s and ’60s. He used to come to Far East Oven.”

A talented cook, Mr. Lee made delicious crab Rangoon and deviled eggs, family members said.

Woodrow “Woodie” Lee dances at a wedding. | Supplied photo
Woodrow “Woodie” Lee dances at a wedding. | Supplied photo

Mr. Lee’s wife, Constance Palello Lee, died before him, as did her children Frank Palello and Candy Gossling; his brothers Sim, Thomas, Paul, Kay, Jack, Gordon and John; and his sisters Alice Moy, Mabel Chan and Pearl Ko. In addition to his sister Lonnie and companion Betsy Young, he is survived by his wife’s son Phil Palello; sisters Mary Moy, Annie Wing and Gertrude Chan; four step-grandchildren and three step-great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Woodie Lee grew up in a Chinatown family of 15 children. He is in back row, fourth from left. | Supplied photo
Woodie Lee grew up in a Chinatown family of 15 children. He is in back row, fourth from left. | Supplied photo